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Duane Michals’ ‘This Photograph is My Proof’ (1974)

Question: Is this image actually proof of a happy liaison or is that just what we choose to see? What do you think?

The photograph (see fig. 1.) and its caption plays with the conventions of documentary photography. In its early days, for example when photographers showed the plight of the rural poor during the Great Depression of the 1930s, viewers would not have understood the phrase ‘it did happen … see look for yourself’ beneath any photograph, it would have seemed superfluous, such was the understanding and belief that the ‘camera never lied’. As photography began to be employed in other fields — news reporting, fashion, advertising, propaganda — people’s understanding of the photographic images became more sophisticated (or wary).

Such sophistication was foreshadowed by movements in art such as the Surrealists. For example René Magritte’s (b. 1898) painting ‘The Betrayal of Images’ (see fig. 2.) consists of a view of a smoking pipe, with the words ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (This is not a pipe) written below; the painting makes the point (among others) that the image is not the object itself. It is known that Magritte was ‘a big hero of Michals’ and a major influence on his work’ (McKenna, 1993). Michals’ caption to ‘This Photograph is my Proof’ challenges the viewer in a way similar to that of the Magritte painting, making a positive statement about the image which immediately places a doubt in the viewer’s mind, a doubt all the stronger for the viewer being familiar (as is everyone in today’s culture) with the slipperiness of photographic interpretation, especially documentary.

If Michals’ photograph was viewed without the caption the viewer could engage imaginatively with it (the ‘frame’) and see it as the image of a couple in a loving embrace, the setting implying that they are happy lovers. The addition of the caption shows that the photograph itself alone is inadequate to the task of expressing the complexities and nuances of the situation captured. The interpretation (‘context’) is now open: for example, who is speaking in the caption, is it the photographer who has taken a self-portrait? If the photographer is not in the frame then what is the relationship between the photographer and the people photographed? The photograph and caption constitute a single art work that has much in common with other postmodernist works, for example those of Cindy Sherman and Nikki S Lee. These artists bring self-consciousness to their work:

a self-consciousness that promotes an awareness of photographic representation, of the camera’s role in creating and disseminating the ‘commodities’ of visual culture (Grundberg, 2003: 164-179).

In summary, when looking at the image ‘This Photograph is My Proof’ I could choose to see ‘proof of a happy liaison’ but this would be a naïve reading of the image ignoring as it does today’s culture where the phrases ‘photographic proof’ and ‘the camera doesn’t lie’ are invitations to scepticism.

References

Grundberg, Andy (2003) ‘The Crisis of the Real’ In: Wells (ed.) The Photography Reader. London: Routledge. pp. 164-179

McKenna, Kristine (1993) For maverick Duane Michals, a photo is worth far less than a thousand words when the questions are about the very meaning of truth [online] At: http://www.artnews.com/2013/07/29/duane-michals-fighting-against-photography/ (Accessed on: 26.10.14)

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Michals, Duane (1974) This Photograph is My Proof At: http://www.shanelavalette.com/images/journal/duanemichals01_large.jpg (Accessed 27.10.14)

Figure 2. Magritte, René (1928) Ceci n’est pas une pipe [Painting oil on canvas] At: http://collections.lacma.org/sites/default/files/remote_images/piction/ma-51791545-WEB.jpg (Accessed on 27.10.14)

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